Friday, July 31, 2009

Usefulness and Beauty

Another wonderful post from my favorite blogger, Fr. Stephen Freeman:


We can say without hesitation that God is the ultimate author of Beauty, and what we know and love of beauty is an echo or stronger of our desire for the Beautiful God. It becomes a major problem of sin, largely unrecognized, when beauty begins to recede from the consciousness of people, or something tawdry or ersatz becomes substituted for that which is beautiful.

We live, of course, in a culture which is predicated on mass production. Thus even within Orthodoxy we are driven towards mass production in an effort to economize and to satisfy ourselves with the same level of aesthetic that marks our culture (this is frequently true of icons in mission churches, including my own). I have had opportunity to see and worship in an environment marked by quality iconography and in a few cases, truly great icons.

I can recall being in a parish that has a particularly well-rendered “Rublev” Trinity (the three angels in the visit with Abraham) in the parish altar. I was officiating Vespers. As the sun began to set, the dying rays of the evening sun caught the icon and it began to “luminesce” in a manner I had only read about. The icon shone brightly with a light that appeared to come from within. This is not easily accomplished in the painting of an icon, but is certainly a proper goal of its execution. It is a revelation of the heavenly light (iconographically).

Both the orientation of the Church and the quality of its iconography became one with the service that was being offered and a beauty that is all too rare was revealed. There was nothing to be said, but as the choir sang, “O Gladsome Light,” the icon wordlessly proclaimed the same.

There is much in our life and culture that pushes us away from beauty. Mass production and the nature of our economy (marked by a level of productivity unknown in human history), are driven by questions other than beauty. Beauty has value as it can be marketed, but too often is absent in any depth from much of our experience. (I should add that the long-term goals of my parish include proper iconography and a temple that conforms to Orthodox architectural norms.)

Deeply distressing is the drive to “utility” in our lives. Value is given to that which is “useful.” Beauty thus becomes an avocation, a luxury not seen as useful or necessary to our existence. Of course, this is a deep miscalculation of the nature of human existence. Human beings do not exist well without beauty – and in most of human culture throughout most of human history, beauty has been valued beyond many of the things which we think of as “useful.”

The recent questions about knowing God – which I have described as something that often comes to me in the “peripheral vision” of my life – seems somehow related to the perception of beauty as well. Beauty often seems to be “greater than the sum of its parts.” We see beauty not simply by looking at a thing – but by seeing it. Many people look at icons – a rightly prepared heart is required in order to see an icon. Beauty is not an object to be manipulated – but always a gift and a wonder to be venerated. So, too, our knowledge of God. Thus the knowledge of God seems radically different than the knowledge we gain by the exercise of our rational faculty. God cannot be mastered or measured. Even though He has given us words to express Him – He cannot be contained in the words. As the Fathers of the 7th Council said, “Icons do with color what Scripture does with words.” I would suggest that it is also true that Scripture does with words what icons do with color. With that – some brief thoughts on beauty.

A very sad existence indeed is a human life that has been reduced to utility and emptied of beauty.

The very presence of God brings beauty into the world, for God Himself is beautiful. As human art has revealed, even in the suffering of the Cross, God is beautiful.

I can recall some years ago chairing a committee of a parish that was in the process of interviewing architects (we were planning to build our first true “church”). One architect we interviewed shared his opinion: churches historically had wasted a lot of money that could have better been spent on the poor. I do not hesitate in preaching our obligations to the poor, nor the need for us to tithe and give beyond ourselves. But I had no hesitancy in looking for a different architect. I daresay few architects would have said to a family whose house they were designing, “I think people have spent too much on building their homes and have neglected the poor.” It was churches that should be relegated to utility.

I strongly expect, because of the seamless garment of Christian theology, that someone who does not understand the necessity of beauty will not truly love the poor. For the poor must be treated not merely as the objects of our utility but the beautiful creations of God: anything less is not love.

I recall the title of Macolm Muggeridge’s wonderful book on Mother Teresa: Something Beautiful for God.

Yes. Yes, indeed.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Many Years!

I joined my friends at Lutheran Church of the Resurrection (my former fellowship) this past Sunday morning as their pastor of many years, Robert Hausman, celebrated his last eucharist as their pastor and begins his retirement.

Though I was a member of this parish for just a few short years, it was a time of great learning for me and of profound deepening of faith, thanks in part to the ministry of this faithful pastor.

The first time I visited his church I was completely charmed by it. A small congregation who sings the hymnody and liturgy like they really mean it (they do!), a warm and inviting sanctuary, a complete and faithful liturgy, a wonderful choir, and this rather non-typical (at least for MN) pastor with a really long sermon and sort of a mortician's handshake. For a good Lutheran, what's not to love? And so I went back the next week. And the next. And before too long I became a part of this community of faith and he became a mentor and friend.

And for those next weeks and months and years this pastor with a mortician's handshake taught me. With every liturgy and sermon and meeting and conversation he taught me something. Something about God or about the church or about liturgy or about community or about life. Perhaps most importantly, he helped me to learn much about myself.

But my last last several months as a member at Resurrection were a time of spiritual struggle for me. And during those months while I slogged through the muck of frustration and fear and everything else that sometimes happens when God calls a person to a new place in life, at times I dragged him through a bit of muck, too. Yet at those time he slogged along with me, because that's what a good pastor does. And that is what a good friend does.

Though he has not been my pastor for nearly three years he has continued to be a patient and trusted friend, and in every note or conversation or visit he continues to teach me.

May God grant him many, many years ... I still have alot to learn.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Holding Our Breath

A couple of weeks ago we added a large addition to our existing chicken run in order to help with the integration of our 2 young pullets and our 2 laying hens. The feathers flew momentarily a couple of times at first - a bit of squawking and chasing and nipping every now and then - but within only a day or so they got it sorted out and our two little flocks were spending their days together quite peacefully. At about dusk each night the hens would climb the ladder up to the henhouse and the pullets would pace the fence, waiting for us to come and put them in their own small coop to sleep.

The pullets should start laying soon and we will go on vacation even sooner. We really want to have all of our chickens together in the same henhouse and run - peacefully - before we go (because they can let themselves in and out of the henhouse, all our chicken sitter will have to do while we are gone is stop over to change the water and check the food once a day - and collect the eggs from the hens.)

So now is the time to get the girls into the henhouse with the ladies. And tonight seemed as good a night as any to give it a shot.

We put the pullets up into the house just before dusk (they were sorta freaked out, not knowing what to do up there), and we waited just the few short minutes until dusk, and watched the hens head up the ladder into the henhouse.

Then we watched them climb immediately back down again, chattering away ("What are THEY doing up there???").

Then they went right back up. Lucy (queen of the coop and alpha hen stood there and BAWKED for a few minutes, then she settled in next to Ruby in their regular sleeping spot in the henhouse. Then, we stood on the deck and waited for a good fight to break out. And we waited. And waited. Finally after about 15 minutes, DearHusband and YoungerSon went down to the yard and took a peek in the henhouse. Both the hens were asleep, and the pullets were quiet, but nervously looking around.

That was about an hour ago. And it's still quiet down there. Not a cheep out of anyone...yet.

If no one has been pecked to death, or attacked, or booted out of the henhouse by morning (all of which can happen and often does), I think we may have cleared this hurdle rather painlessly.

This is what happens.

This is what happens when we fail to teach (at least in words, if not by example) our children that marriage is not about us, and that marriage is serious business.

This is what happens when congregations allow their temples to become rental halls.

This is what happens when we do not teach our children who God is - and how to approach him to ask for his blessing. And when we fail to instill in them any idea of what holiness is or what it means.

Things get out of hand.

Sometimes it is helpful to remember that the rites of the church are the way they are not because of some lack of creativity on the part of God's people, but because they serve a higher purpose than simply being a creative outlet.

But the church no longer knows how to say no. Like the overly permissive parent who equates love with saying yes to everything and doesn't realize until it's too late that saying yes to everything was not the most loving - or responsible - thing to do.

Christ whose bride is the Church united himself to her by suffering and dying for her. And by this Christ showed us what marriage is to be.

But that doesn't sound like much fun, does it?